The Waldorf- Astoria Hotel
The famed Waldorf-Astoria Hotel has a quintessential New York City-origin story. It began as a family feud and rivalry between two very wealthy cousins who shared the last name Astor. William Waldorf Astor proceeded to irritate his cousin John Jacob Astor by building a 13-story hotel on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 33rd Street, on a residential block where John Jacob’s mother lived. Four years later, John Jacob, in turn, built a 17-story hotel just a few feet away–and the rest is history.
15. The Astor Hotel was Almost Called the Waldorf Schermerhorn
Photo from Library of Congress
In 1893, William Waldorf Astor hired renowned architect Henry Hardenbergh, who would later design The Dakota apartments, to build a 13-story grand hotel on the site of what was his family mansion. At the time, it was the largest and most luxurious hotel in the world, with 450 rooms. He then hired the talented George C. Boldt to act as General Manager. Mr. Boldt, with his reputation for the highest levels of service, quickly brought to the Waldorf Hotel a reputation as a premiere hotel–the first to offer private bathrooms, room service and electricity throughout. They were also the first to offer a kids menu.
Meanwhile, John Jacob Astor IV owned the other end of the block. Four years after the construction of the Waldorf, John Jacob built a 17-story hotel within feet of the Waldorf, using the same architect. His intention was to name The Schermerhon after his mother and he approached George Boldt with the idea of managing his hotel, since George worked just feet away for his cousin. But George had a problem with the hotel name and said that he would only agree to manage it if it had a more appealing and less difficult name. John Jacob came back with the name “The Astor,” named after the fur-trapping colony in Oregon where his family was originally from.
In time–and having good business sense–it was decided that the hotels should be physically joined together by a long hallway. The combined hotels, opening in 1897, became the largest hotel in the world.
14. Peacock Alley, a 300-ft Corridor Merged the Two Hotels
Photo from Library of Congress
In order to join the two hotels, a 300-foot corridor was created with a restaurant on either end. It was named Peacock Alley since the fashionistas of the time–both men and women–enjoyed strutting their stuff up and down the alley as the public looked on. The creation of Peacock Alley joined the two hotels, and the name was changed to The Waldorf=Astoria, using not a dash but an equal sign in between.
13. The Site of The Original Waldorf Astoria on 5th Avenue is Now The Empire State Building
The sinking of The Titanic took the life of John Jacob Astor IV in 1912, and William died of a heart attack in 1919. The land where the grand hotel sat was sold in 1928 to a developer, who demolished the building and erected the Empire State Building.
12. The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel’s Name Was Bought for $1
Ledger of special events in 1915. Each page describes a single event in detail from the food and wine to the cigarettes and souvenir’s
A man by the name of Lucius Boomer, who owned and managed a number of hotels purchased the Waldorf Astoria hotel name for $1 before it was demolished–and then proceeded to build a new hotel on Park Avenue at its current location.
Opening in 1931, the new hotel by the same name was 47-stories tall with 2,200 rooms and took up the entire city block from 49th Street to 50th Street and from Park Avenue to Lexington Avenue. This was now the largest hotel in the world.
11. Elephants Once Roamed the Waldorf Astoria
The current main lobby of The Waldorf Astoria, with the historic clock to the left.
Publicity like this, you cannot buy. Elsa Maxwell was a theatrical figure, a newspaper gossip columnist and radio show host with a following of millions. She loved to play the piano with Cole Porter and play cards with Winston Churchill. But most of all, she loved to throw a really good party. She was such a popular figure in New York society, that when the new Waldorf Astoria Hotel opened in 1931, they gave her a suite rent-free, hoping she would attract business during the depression.
In 1935, Maxwell hosted the famous Circus Ball in the Grand Ballroom, arriving from the large service elevator atop an elephant. She never married, and died in New York in 1963.
10. Cole Porter Bequeathed His Steinway to The Waldorf Astoria
Cole Porter’s mahogany baby grand piano, now sitting in the Peacock Alley Lounge
The largest suite in The Towers belonged to Cole Porter, who lived there from 1934 until his death in 1964. The 4,300 square foot Suite #33A consists of 5 bedrooms and 5 1/2 baths. Porter had two baby grand pianos inside along with his two cats named “Anything” and “Goes.”
The piano he bequeathed to the Waldorf was built in 1907 and was purchased by Porter from the Steinway family. It was here in Suite #33A and on this piano that he wrote most of his music. After Porter’s death in 1964, Frank Sinatra and his wife Barbara took over the lease and lived there until 1988. The piano was bequeathed to the Waldorf Astoria and is currently in the Peacock Alley Lounge, just off the main lobby.
A close-up of the beautiful Louis XVI figures, along with lots of scratch marks from his beloved cats, on his Steinway piano.
9. A 148,000 Piece Mosaic Was Hidden Under The Lobby Carpet for Decades
The Ladies Lobby, at the 50th Street entrance to the Waldorf Astoria
When the hotel was built, it was common practice for women and men to have separate lobbies, since it was not respectable for women to see financial transactions. The main lobby in the Waldorf Astoria was considered at that time to be the Gentlemen’s Lobby (photo below), the place where men sat and smoked their cigars, and the place where they paid the hotel bill. The ladies had their own lobby, which for decades had thick carpeting, heavy curtains covering the walls and a drop ceiling.
But a flood in the Vanderbilt Room in 1983 required the removal of the carpets and drapes, revealing a magnificent tile floor. The 148,000 piece mosaic, named Wheel of Life, was created by French artist Louis Rigal. Intricate molding, a gold-leaf ceiling and 13 oil murals also painted by Rigal were also uncovered. The Art Deco room, with an entrance off Park Avenue, is now completely restored, including the return of original urns from storage.
8. The Story Behind the Miniature Statue of Liberty in the Lobby
The grand clock that sits in the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria was originally exhibited at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. In 1902, John Jacob Astor afixed a small Statue of Liberty, a gift from France, to the top, creating intense friction with the British.
7. The Hotel Has Only One Waterford Crystal Chandelier
The hotel has 123 chandeliers, each patented and made of Austrian crystal. The one and only Waterford crystal chandelier–16 feet in diameter–is located in the Grand Ballroom.
6. There Was An Automobile Showroom in the Grand Ballroom of the Hotel
The General Motors Motor Show, which was then known as “Motorman,” was showcased in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria from 1931 to 1961. There were no car dealerships in the city back then, and this was a way to showcase fancy prototypes and concept vehicles to the public during the New York Auto Show. The Grand Ballroom is four-stories tall which not only housed auto shows, but could also seat 1,500 for dinner or 1,100 with dancing.
5. There Is An Abandoned Train Station Under the Waldorf Astoria
Photo by Wasabi Bob via Flickr
A private elevator used by Elsa Maxwell and her elephant during the Circus Ball is really a private elevator leading to a secret train platform deep beneath the hotel. When the hotel purchased the Park Avenue land, there were tracks used to supply a nearby powerhouse. The powerhouse was no longer in use, but the Waldorf kept track #61 to allow personal railroad cars for guests to pull in underneath the hotel and take the elevator directly to their rooms, by-passing the lobby.
Track 61 was reportedly used by celebrities like Andy Warhol and his famous underground party in 1965 to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who used it as a way to downplay his disability. The elevator was so large that it could fit FDR’s armor-plated Pierce Arrow car inside. The track still exists today, just one abandoned rail car, that can be seen through the grates looking down, while walking by 49th Street at Park Avenue. The elevator door into the lobby also still exists (below).
The elevator door leading down to the Track #61, used by Elsa Maxwell who rode her elephant into the Grand Ballroom for the Circus Ball.
4. The Royal Suite Was Home to King Edward VII and His American Wife
Suite 28A – The Royal Suite
In keeping with the glamour and gossip that filled the halls of the Waldorf Astoria, King Edward VII, who had given up his throne to marry a twice-divorced American, Mrs. Wallis Simpson, arrived at the Waldorf Astoria for their first visit to the U.S. in 1941. Now known as The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, their love for their many pugs and her love of the color powder-blue can be seen today in Suite 28A The Royal Suite.
A recent renovation by the hotel recaptured what made it their home, with the walls painted in her favorite color, and blue silk on the couches and chairs. The two-bedroom suite has a large living room with baby grand piano adorned with framed photos of the Duke and Duchess. Attached is a formal dining room that can seat twenty and a small kitchen. On the chairs in their bedroom, pillows with images of pugs are similar the the pug pillow’s the Duchess collected. The Duke and Duchess had this suite well into the 1950s.
The master bedroom in the Royal Suite
3. Rarely Seen Event Rooms at The Waldorf Astoria
Event rooms are plentiful at The Waldorf Astoria and since they are frequently booked, we rarely get a chance to see them. We were delighted to get a look at the magnificent Basildon Room with its beautiful paneling, Parisian marble fireplace and frescoed ceiling.
2. The Top Floors of Waldorf Astoria Will Become Condos
Lucius Boomer died in an airplane crash in 1947 and Conrad Hilton acquired management rights in 1949. The Hilton Hotels Corporation bought the Waldorf Astoria outright in 1972 but in February 2015 the hotel once again changed hands and was purchased by Anbang Insurance, a Chinese group for $1.95 billion dollars.
Anbang Insurance will be converting the top floors of The Waldorf Towers into condos, so you can now buy The Royal Suite, Presidental Suite and even Cole Porters and Frank Sinatra’s Suite. The Towers have a private lobby and entrance located on 50th Street (above) but can be accessed from within the main hotel lobby (below). The have their own bank of elevators with interiors made of carpathian elm and oak.
1. There Are 6 Beehives Atop A Waldorf Astoria Roof Deck
More than 300,000 bees in six active hives make honey on a rooftop deck twenty stories up. When bee keeping in our city became legal in 2010, the hotel enlisted a full-time beekeeper who set up the hives and extracts the honey used in the hotel restaurants.
Located at 100 East 50th Street, the Waldorf Astoria Hotel became a New York City Landmark in 1993. A historic tour is offered each Thursday and Saturday, which includes lunch in the Peacock Alley Lounge.